How to Avoid Poor Behavior in Young Children

By Elissa Gonzalez, M.D., M.P.H. Little girl high fiving her dad

Raising a child is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. From watching your baby grow in the first months of life to watching toddlers discover the world, parenting certainly has it's beautiful moments. Although it's full of wonderful moments, it often has a fair share of difficult ones, too. Here are some ways you, as a parent, can prevent ugly behavior, de-emphasize the bad, and reinforce the good.

Part 1: Preventing Ugly Behavior

By ugly, I mean the uncontrollable tantrums, the fighting, the hitting, and the angry outbursts. When we can prevent our child’s ugly behavior, we as parents are preserving our own sanity every day. Here are some guidelines to help prevent these episodes; however, this will not eliminate these behaviors completely since your children are human after all.

  1. Bonding
  2. Emotions
  3. Routine
  4. Anticipation
  5. Meeting needs


First you must bond. Establishing a strong connection with your child is an important factor in changing negative behaviors and maintaining positive behaviors. With younger children, maintaining a positive warm tone through play and getting down at eye level can help with building connections. In older children, showing interest in their daily activities and being flexible (listening and negotiating) can serve the same purpose. Sharing in decision-making is helpful for understanding each other and empowering your child at any age.

For example, you may give your toddler the option of either walking to the car or hopping to the car. An older child may feel empowered to get to decide to watch his one-hour TV program now and homework later or the reverse. In either situation, you are still deciding the end result. Involving the child in decision-making has been associated with long-term enhancement of moral judgment.

Bonding can be hard to accomplish and maintain. It takes time, effort, and practice. Your child will change constantly. Knowing who they are and supporting them as individuals will be a work in progress. Giving consistent love and affection will aid in this journey.


Let’s talk about emotions which is something not often done in our society. Emotions are often hard to express though easily felt, which can be the root of ugly episodes. Working on expressing how you feel inside is important to model for children so they can understand their own feelings and what to do with them. For example, you might say, “I am hurt right now because you hit me with that book. It makes me sad to see someone I love hurt me.” Help your child label certain emotions they are having and find healthy ways to cope with those emotions.


Make a schedule and stick with it. Providing a consistent routine and expectations can help convey respect for your child and help with your sanity. Think of all the activities that result in arguments at home. Homework? Dinner? Chores? In my family, it’s bath time. Creating schedules that are the same every day can reduce resistance and make negative experiences less stressful.


No matter the age of your child, interrupting their activities, whether it is a video game or blocks, can be very stressful and emotionally charged for your child. Using timers and warnings is important for managing their expectations; letting them know they have five minutes left, then three minutes, and one minute before changing activities. Sometimes there are moments when you forget to anticipate a change in the schedule or you need to leave somewhere quickly and during those times you can incorporate what they are doing into the next activity. For example, when my child is focused on his monster trucks and it is time to get in the car, but I did not plan ahead for an anticipation timer, I see where he is in his play and bring it into our car. “Your truck is going to the mountains? I bet it would be faster if he hitched a ride with us! Let’s bring your truck with us.” Or, “Your animals/blocks look dirty. Bring them into the bath tub so we can wash them.”

Meeting needs

I am talking about basic everyday needs. When your child has missed a nap or a meal, they are in no condition to properly reason. I know when my infant keeps me up all night, my fuse is much shorter, and it takes more intentional energy to deal with everyday tasks. Kids are the same way! Feed them. Make them sleep. Prevent ugly behaviors.

Part 2: De-Emphasizing The Bad

In this blog, we will explore how you can focus on positive reinforcement and avoid placing attention on negative behaviors by:

  1. Eliminating the “Nos,” the “don’ts,” and the “can’ts”
  2. Focusing on what they should do
  3. Picking your battles
  4. Addressing the emotions not the behavior

Eliminating “no”

Think about how many times you say this word in a day and how often that word induces ugly behavior. “No, don’t grab that. No, you can’t have candy. No, don’t say/do that.” Focusing on the negative behaviors can also devalue the significance of saying “no.” A firm “no” should be used when a child is hitting or running into the street, but challenge yourself to avoid “no” in other cases. If you focus on the No’s and Don’ts they will too. For example, if I say, “ Don’t think about cherries,” what are you thinking about right now? Cherries. The same holds true for children. “Don’t eat that candy,” and they will only think about candy. If you do not give it to them, they will get upset. Try saying, “Candy has a lot of sugar. I have a tasty orange. We can make some juice with together.” If you try to change the way you talk, the behaviors will change as well.

What should they do?

Try to focus on what the child should be doing instead of what they should not be doing. For example, instead of, “Don’t stand on that chair,” say, “Please sit on your bottom in the chair. You can fall and get hurt if you are standing.” This will help them build on critical thinking so that next time they are standing on the chair (because there will be at least 20 more times), they will eventually remember that they should sit because it is safer. Letting them know what to do will help them problem solve in the future and develop their moral judgement.


Picking battles

Your child is human; you are human. We need to pick which behaviors bother us the most. My child will not be the person I want him to be at all times, just as I know I am not the perfect person I want to be at all time. We make mistakes, and they make mistakes. I pick what I want to address so I’m not spending most of my day making a big deal of every misgiving.


Yes, we are talking about emotions again. Work on addressing the emotion linked to the poor behavior. If your child breaks a plate, spills milk, destroys your favorite shirt after spilling paint, address how he feels. “Was that scary? Are you O.K.?” Resist “You shouldn’t have been playing with the paint! You know you are clumsy with your plate. Next time don’t walk with it.” If the behaviors are accidents, address how it makes them feel. If behaviors are purposeful, talk about what made them feel a certain way. “How were you feeling when you threw paint at me? What made you feel that way? What other ways can we deal with that emotion?”

Part 3: Reinforcing The Good

Let’s explore ways that you can maintain your child’s good behavior through positive comments and by making the most of the time you spend with each other.

  1. Praising versus rewarding
  2. Special time
  3. Modeling

Praising and Rewarding

When children do the things they are asked or even when they are not asked, praise them. Try and work on enforcing intrinsic appraisals like, “I’m so proud of you for organizing the game room. That took a lot of hard work.” When your child cleans their room, talk about how good it makes them feel and how there is room to play and walk. Discuss that their belongings are now organized and easier to find. Help them be proud of themselves for good behavior, because in the real world they will not get a cookie for making their bed or cleaning their car. In addition, we all know lollipops only work for so long until they move on to bigger and more expensive things! Use extrinsic rewards like toys, cookies, candy, and ice cream sparingly.

Special Time

Provide positive individual attention to each child daily, or when time permits depending on your household size. No matter the age, spending 10 minutes alone with your child can mean the world to them. Giving them that sense of importance in an otherwise chaotic day, can change the way they interact with everyone and view their existence. Simple words such as, “I saw you helped out your sister today. You didn’t have to do that, but you did. Thank you!” Or consider asking, “If you could be anyone today, who would it be?” This is your time to know your child and make them feel important; make it a priority in your schedule.

Modeling Good Behaviors

This will help solidify expectations for a child. If you throw trash outside, do not expect them to help clean up the environment. They are learning about good and bad behaviors from you. We are not perfect, and we make mistakes. Modeling mistakes and solutions as well can be powerful in helping them understand that mistakes happen and admitting to them and fixing them is the right thing to do.

You are brave. You are knowledgeable. You are amazing. Parent on!

Dr. Elissa Gonzalez wrote this as a third-year pediatric resident at CHRISTUS Children’s. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Early Childhood Development and since has tried to incorporate the whole-child approach in her practice. Dr. Gonzalez’s research and training has been in the areas of pediatrics and prevention of diseases since her passion is in the areas of working with children and families. She obtained a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree and a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. During her free time, you can find her riding bikes at the many parks in town or walking around the farmers market with her husband and children.

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